Headshot Tutorial

Taking a good headshot is an integral part of being a solid commercial photographer. It’s also a great way to showcase your subject in a great light so to speak. Headshots can be used for a variety of purposes. Actors, models, entertainers, and business people use professional headshots to send to casting agents, post on LinkedIN or other social sites, and of course good old fashioned self promotion.

You never know who may be looking at your photo or the photo of you. As a photographer this leads to more work because if your customers as satisfied with your service they will refer you to other like minded individuals (word of mouth still exists!) As an actor, model, entertainer or what have you – a good headshot means that you’re making a visual connection with someone when you’re not in the room with them. A good photo goes a long way and implies that you should be taken seriously. But how do you take that great headshot? Here are a few pointers.

My subject Meghan Po was gracious enough to pose for this tutorial and I expect you all to give her a hearty round of applause. Taking a great headshot also means you need to be handy with Photoshop or Lightroom. I try to snag the best capture IN camera so I only have to do minor adjustments in post (that’s for a later tutorial)

The first thing you’re going to need besides your camera is a subject. The more practice you have shooting actual people the better you will become at it. Shoot as many people as possible and eventually you will see your work grow and your style emerge.

headshots-tutorial-fig1For this tutorial here is an example of a good headshot with minimal retouching.

Meghan was sitting on a chair, her legs angled to the left and her body twisted toward me. I used a seamless fashion gray paper backdrop, and a very cost effective strobe light synced with an inexpensive flash trigger. We were both very pleased with the results. As far as equipment goes I used a Canon 70D with 100MM 2.8 L-series macro lens. This is my go to lens when it comes to portraits and if you’re going to invest in a nice lens for portraiture I suggest the 100mm, Canon’s 85mm, and Canon’s 70-200 2.8. Of course you don’t have to stick with Canon or those lens specs. Tamron and Sigma make very cost effective alternatives if you do your research. When I first started I was using a very basic Canon 50mm 2.5 macro lens (which I still use on occasion) You don’t have to start with a huge budget. If you observe the craft of creating a great photo that will sink in as you build a better technical and artistic foundation to explore your photography. My camera settings for this particular photo were F2.8, 1/60 shutter speed, and an ISO of 100.

Now, what do those numbers mean? As simply as I can put it you take photos while using light to your advantage. Light is the number one factor in taking clear photos. The higher your F-stop the more light is let into your camera, your shutter speed is how fast you’re letting light into your lens, and your ISO for the most part is a metering of available light to which you would match your settings. Yes. The number system can be confusing but once you get a hold of these three sets of numbers you’ll be on your way to take better photos. Some quick examples are if you’re shooting outside during the day the most intense the light is the lower you need to set your F-stop (between F10 and F13 let’s say) and keep your ISO as low as possible. Shutter speed varies depending on how you shoot. My personal preference is usually at 1/60 because I mainly shoot handheld and I find that 1/60 balances the slight camera shake that may occur without sacrificing clarity or allowing for too much noise in a photo. If you use a tripod you can set your shutter speed slower since you’re not in motion. This is perfect for still life or landscape photography as you would get richer pictures. I generally keep my F at 2.8 if I’m in studio or on location for which I would use either flashes with triggers and softboxes or a strobe to bounce the light onto my subject. Also, do not doubt the auto focus setting on your lens. It will be a lifesaver.

headshots-tutorial-fig2Here is an example of a wrong ISO setting as well as soft photo (when you hear a photo called soft that means it’s out of focus) This photo was purposely shot with the ISO at 100. The strobe was turned off and we got a very obscured photo that would not make for a good headshot at all. Her features cannot be seen and there is no light adjustment. Conversely when you set your ISO higher than your available light source you will get a blown out photo as seen below.

headshots-tutorial-fig3Not only is the ISO too high, but the strobe is on, the subject wasn’t ready, and she is framed poorly plus her hair is messy on the sides. Besides your technical know-how you need to plan and prep for the person you are shooting. Make sure their clothes are adjusted, their makeup is on properly, their hair is right for the photo you’re taking, and that they are ready for you to snap away. Part of the process is making your subject comfortable with you as a photographer so they open up and give you the image you need that makes them look their best. That means being accommodating, friendly, positive, and happy to be there. No one wants a catty photographer with a bad attitude taking their picture.

headshots-tutorial-fig5Here is an example of a technical and personal misstep on the photographer’s part. Not only is the F set at 6.3, the subject is not looking at the camera. It’s your job as a photographer to engage your subject, lead them in posing, and where they need to be looking. A proper headshot is one that showcases a person’s face and eyes that engage the audience.

Here is a very subtle before and after capture.


The left was the in camera capture and the right was edited in Lightroom ever so slightly to bring out hair color, reduce glare on face, and make her eyes pop just a bit. As you can see she is framed properly and her face takes up most of the frame as it should. She is engaging the audience and her eyes are telling the story. Flow of your subject in frame is very important. Her hair is cascading down on either side and her neckline is visible creating a new line that your eye can follow from the top of her head to the bottom of the image, which frames her face. There are no stray hairs on her face, a minimal background, and nothing distracting the audience from the subject. When taking a headshot I find that standing while your subject is seated makes for a more appealing capture. It forces them to look up and show you more of their face at a slight angle.

Experiment as much as you can and take the learning process to a new level by engaging your subjects, learning about your camera, adapting to shooting situation, and learning from photographers that you like.

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This entry was posted by Richard Storm.

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